Parshat Shelach Lecha: Numbers 13:1-15:41; Joshua 2:1-24.
In this week’s Torah portion, 12 spies are sent to check out the land God promised the Israelites. Among them is Joshua, Moses’ personal assistant, chosen from the tribe of Ephraim.
It was Joshua’s first big solo assignment, his first shot at real leadership. He must have been excited. How then must he have felt when he flopped?
Of course, we know that things don’t end well. When the spies come back, 10 of the 12 advise not to go forward. Caleb, the only spy who shares Joshua’s view, speaks up and tries to dissuade them. Only after Caleb’s failure do we hear Joshua’s voice, and by that time it all seems way too late. Most of the people around them have already been dissuaded and the cause is lost. A generation is fated to die in the wilderness. Joshua had failed.
Many people in this kind of situation would find the easiest and most attractive choice open at this point to be early retirement. Joshua has had a great run as assistant at the top level, a try at local politics, a chance to serve in what could arguably be seen as the most important mission of the generation and a total failure.
Many leaders throughout history have surely started their careers in a manner something like this and ended their careers like this as well. Truthfully, I have known more than a few rabbis, and more than a few volunteers in various Jewish communities, who have been in similar situations. Lots of people have good qualifications, good training, some terrific experience, enthusiasm for the cause; and then they are given their first taste of real community service and quickly call it quits.
But some people stick with it. Joshua stuck with it. In his first effort on his own he bombs. But that first effort is hardly his last. He will yet appear in many more of our Bible stories. And when Moses approaches the end of his life, it is Joshua whom the people accept as his successor. The Joshua whom the people ignored years earlier becomes the unanimous choice.
And he is good! He learns from experience. In the haftarah that goes with this week’s portion, we get a glimpse. In a second story of spies, this time sent to Jericho as Joshua now leads the Israelites into the promised land, it is not a delegate committee. Instead, Joshua handpicks two representatives to be sure not to get the same result as a generation before.
We get these two stories together this week, both involving Joshua, perhaps to remind us of something we all know from experience. We don’t always get great success with our first try. One of the most important qualifications for long-term success is the ability to deal with short-term frustration. Very likely there will be temptations to give it all up and try something else. But history is filled with examples of people who didn’t give up and ultimately became truly great and gifted leaders.
In a way, throughout life the pattern is the same. Some people face terrible reverses and devastating losses — loss of job and income and housing and support system and sometimes more. We understand why some people find that crushing. But there are also stories, many of them, about people who face the losses, keep trying, allow others to help, learn from experience, keep plugging away and eventually make it successfully.
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Brent Gutmann is a rabbi at Temple Kol Ami in West Bloomfield.